Having never read any Tana French before July, I’ve recently blazed through four of her novels: In the Woods, The Likeness, The Secret Place and The Trespasser. The last of these was the catalyst. I received a review copy believing it was going to be like all the other police procedurals I read to relax; by the end, I felt like it had pushed the bar so much higher that everything else I read in this genre from now on – even classics like Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing or A Place of Execution – would fail to clear it.
The Trespasser focuses on the Dublin Murder Squad that has taken centre stage in all of French’s published novels so far. While the novel connects back to previous books, most notably The Secret Place, which immediately precedes it, you don’t need to have read anything else by French to enjoy it – and I actually wonder if I loved The Trespasser even more because I came upon it fresh. The complex web of relationships, loyalties and grudges that we sense beneath the surface of this narrative has been laid carefully over the course of the preceding six books, and even though I’ve now read and enjoyed earlier novels in the series, such as In the Woods, they did feel thinner for lack of this groundwork.
Our narrator is Antoinette Conway, a mixed-race woman who feels painfully visible in the white male world of the squad. French brilliantly conveys how the little slights and nudges that Antoinette encounters every day at work contribute to a feeling that she is constantly under attack. While one of the questions Antoinette battles with throughout this novel is whether or not she is allowing the genuine discrimination she has experienced to make her paranoid, I don’t think French ever slips into suggesting that this is all in Antoinette’s head, which would be hugely problematic. Her use of narrative voice is incredibly sensitive and nuanced, and we quickly learn that we can’t take everything Antoinette says at face value – which may include her eventual ‘realisation’ that she has been over-sensitive. Antoinette’s unreliability would feel more uncomfortable if I wasn’t aware that French pulls exactly the same trick with the male narrator of The Secret Place – and, in this case, it is Antoinette herself that he underestimates.
Antoinette’s narrative works so well because it engages so closely with genre conventions. As I say, I read a fair amount of police procedurals, and I’m used to the lead detective being used as a kind of barometer for what we should think about the situations he or she encounters, and what they say about our society. This is most obvious in more traditional murder mysteries – I’m thinking Adam Dalgleish in PD James’s novels – but also familiar in modern crime novels – Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, or even Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan. Our heroes and heroines are almost always flawed, but their judgement of the world around them remains intact – fulfilling the crime novel’s subsidiary purpose as a kind of social commentary. Reading The Trespasser in this way led me down some false paths. I found myself very angry with Antoinette in the first quarter of the novel, as she sneers at a young woman, Aislinn, who has been violently murdered: ‘She’s maybe five seven, skinny, wearing spike heels, plenty of fake tan, a tight-fitting cobalt-blue dress and a chunky fake-gold necklace… She looks like Dead Barbie.’ After finding out more from Aislinn’s best friend about what Aislinn was like, ‘By this point I would have brained Aislinn with something gingham.’ Her house ‘looks like it was bought through some Decorate Your Home App’ and ‘her life was so boring, just thinking about it makes me want to hit myself in the face with a hammer for a bit of excitement.’
But there’s much more going on here than lazy stereotyping of a working-class woman who tries to look conventionally attractive, and as we learn more about Aislinn, we learn more about Antoinette – especially why her initial reaction to Aislinn was so vicious. One tool that French uses to incredible effect – leaving me wondering why it’s, frankly, a wasted opportunity in every other crime novel I’ve read – is the interrogation. Working closely with her partner, Steve, Antoinette carefully selects which persona she should use when interviewing suspects, from ‘Cool Girl’ to ‘Stroppy Man-Hating Bitch’, and how it will play out throughout the encounter. What information should they feed their targets, and what should they hold back? How should they interact with each other? What tricks can they play to rattle suspects, or put them at their ease? These set-pieces are by far the most compelling thing about The Trespasser – and indeed, about The Secret Place, although they play less of a role in French’s first two novels – and sum up how French is using genre convention to strain the limits of the genre altogether.
For what I found most exciting about The Trespasser was how much it demanded from the reader. Rather than resorting to the tiresome ‘guess whodunnit’ strategies deployed by many crime novels and psychological thrillers, it makes us keen to work out what makes all of these people tick. When Aislinn’s killer is revealed, it’s a neat twist, but the journey we’ve taken to get there is far more important – and, to my mind, far more interesting. Coupled with French’s excellent writing, this leads The Trespasser into literary territory, despite how effectively it wears its genre trappings. Indeed, the majority of literary novels don’t think as smartly and consistently about character. Having raced through three of French’s other novels, The Trespasser is still a stand-out for me, although The Secret Place (which I’ll be writing about shortly) comes close. This is that very rare thing; a genre novel that fulfils the conventions of its genre at the same time as it thoughtfully disposes of them.
The Trespasser is out in the UK on 22nd September 2016, BUT, all of Tana French’s other novels are currently available for 99p on Kindle! GO GO GO.